Discovery; or, the Ferment of Jewish Montreal in the Fifties

With the relaxation of Catholic influence in Quebec, local Jewish culture began to come of age and flourish.

The crowd streams onto the field in celebration after McGill University’s football team won a game at home in 1953. Toronto Star Archives/Toronto Star via Getty Images.

The crowd streams onto the field in celebration after McGill University’s football team won a game at home in 1953. Toronto Star Archives/Toronto Star via Getty Images.

Sept. 27 2018
About Ruth

Ruth R. Wisse is professor emerita of Yiddish and comparative literatures at Harvard and a distinguished senior fellow at Tikvah. Her memoir Free as a Jew: a Personal Memoir of National Self-Liberation, chapters of which appeared in Mosaic in somewhat different form, is out from Wicked Son Press.

We present here the fifth chapter from the memoirs-in-progress of the renowned scholar and author Ruth R. Wisse. Earlier chapters can be found hereFurther installments will appear over the next months.

In college, which I entered in the fall of 1953, I was as free as I would ever be. By then, McGill University had done away with measures restricting the number of Jewish undergraduates and was admitting any local student who had scored well in Quebec’s provincial examinations. All of my friends made the cut—although for some the annual tuition of about $300 required a real sacrifice on the part of their families.

But they, too, gave the impression of being as carefree as I felt—so carefree, in my case, that I arranged with a friend to hitchhike from home to McGill’s downtown campus for class. The idea was not to save money on bus fare but to experience a more venturesome form of transportation.

Intellectual adventure was what I really craved. But my lofty expectations were quickly dampened by freshman requirements involving more Latin and math, and by professors drawn from the same dour Scottish and English stock as were most of our teachers in high school. As for elective courses, I foolishly chose the history of philosophy, which opened with lectures on Heraclitus. One step into his hypothetical river and I knew I couldn’t care less if it was the same river or different from the one I had stepped into the day before or would venture into the day after.

And so my formal study of philosophy ended in, as it were, the image of my then-favorite English writer, Samuel Johnson, kicking the large stone that refuted—“thus!”—Bishop Berkeley’s attempt to prove the non-existence of matter. The example of Johnson booted me out of philosophy into literature’s richer tangle of human personalities. The talmudic rabbis say of the Torah, “Turn it, and turn it, for everything is in it.” I felt the same way about Shakespeare, and by sophomore year had registered for the Honors English program, figuring it would somehow also lead me to a career.

But the real benefit of McGill’s undergraduate program proved to be its lack of oversight. In classes where no one took attendance, I could be absent for weeks at a time and still handily complete the course by reading the assigned texts and acing the final exam. Together with my friend Lionel Tiger, the future eminent anthropologist, I also won a total release from the compulsory composition class when we proved to the satisfaction of the instructor that we had mastered the art of writing.

Besides, incomparably more congenial instruction was available to me in the basement offices of the McGill Daily, whose mostly male editors would teach me journalism from the ground up. Responding to the first call for new freshmen, I began putting in about 40 hours a week at the paper, learning about concision, verification, and the preference for verbs over adjectives and the active over the passive voice—not to mention the fine art of composing headlines. Granted, some of those hours were spent gabbing in the cafeteria, but there, too, I was learning the trade.

My early news assignments on the paper—on our first day as staffers, the news editor had drilled into us the difference between his section (rigorous) and the features section (colorful)—fell largely in the realm of culture. I covered talks by the poets Stephen Spender and Dylan Thomas, the mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary, and the composer Gian Carlo Menotti. By my sophomore year, in keeping with what the senior editors took to be my real inclination, I was made features editor. Yet there, too, I tried to maintain a standard of objectivity by offering competing views on contentious issues. Our model for debate was “may the better-articulated argument win.”

Nonetheless, I deserved to be called sophomoric for emblazoning my section’s pages with Bertrand Russell’s dictum, “Men fear thought more than they fear death.” I ought to have asked whether the philosopher included himself in this fatuous statement of contempt for “ordinary” humans. My own views were conventional—reactionary conservatives bad, progressive liberals good—no doubt because I, too, feared thought more than death.

But journalism was how I was becoming educated, and when daytime hours at the paper did not satisfy, I would volunteer to put the paper to bed, taking our copy down to the Montreal Gazette where I would watch the typesetters block the pages and run off trial sheets for me to proofread. When I was done, a taxi was called that never brought me home before 2:00 in the morning. My parents became so accustomed to this that they stopped waiting up for me.

The Daily also became the center of much of my social life. One of the editors, Marty Goodman, who later became president of the Toronto Star, took me on a singular date to some celebratory evening at the Black Watch Armory where we did Scottish dances. On a slow afternoon in the newsroom a senior editor offered me a ride on his motorcycle, with no destination. Speeding along without a helmet, I felt the thrill of the wind. Everything was adventure.




As I’ve said, I lived at home. To my knowledge, indeed, none of my former high-school classmates went out of town for college. It later occurred to me that my intellectual models, the New York cohort of writer-critics who attended City College in the 1930s (and several of whom will turn up in later chapters) had likewise spent their college years under the unsupervised regimen of harried immigrant parents. With so porous a safety net at home, we had to make sure we did not fall through. Our parents had to trust us, and we had no choice but to earn that trust. None of us got drunk or took drugs or raped or worried about getting raped, or failed to graduate.

Counterintuitively, however, living at home also gave us greater freedom to spend our days in smoky debate, to join and quit political associations, and to risk offending teachers. We meant it when we sang, “Our thoughts are free. . . . No hunter can trap them/ no scholar can map them/ no man can deny/ Die gedanken sind frei!

Very few French-Canadians then attended McGill, the English university; nor did the subject of race figure for us as it did in the United States. The only dark-skinned people I knew at college were from the British West Indies; one was elected Carnival Queen, another became editor of the Daily, which was where you congregated to get away from ethno-religious compartmentalization. For, despite the general whiteness of the student body, such compartmentalization was very much a reality. Just as in high school, I moved every day between a Jewish home and an essentially Protestant school where the distinction between Jew and Gentile was still as clear as could be.

Though I did not consider joining the Jewish sorority, I was briefly active at the campus Hillel and in my junior year co-chaired the youth division of Montreal’s Combined Jewish Appeal. One day I was sitting among the sorority crowd when a girl came by carrying a large box from a downtown store. Everyone asked, “What did you buy?” She took out and modeled a winter coat. Incredulity all around: our families were mainly connected with the clothing industry, also known as the shmatteh business, and none of us had ever bought a coat in a retail store.

If she had substituted the word “Jew” for “rose,” Gertrude Stein might have written that a Jew is a Jew is a Jew, yet some of us were eager to complicate such clarity. By sophomore year I had found or rather was discovered by a Gentile girl determined to escape her own family’s Anglo-Saxon chauvinism. No such friendship would have happened by chance; these were elective affinities. Ann Powell said she picked me out as a friend when she noticed that we were both in Honors English and members of McGill’s Scarlet Key honors society.

She had much to teach me. The first time we played tennis—I had never taken lessons or developed a reliable backhand—I told her that I only rallied but did not play. She said, “Like hell you don’t!” and served into my side of the court when I wasn’t there to return it, calling “fifteen-love!” and forcing me into a competition that would continue for decades until she left Montreal. I don’t think I ever won a set from her, not only because she was the far better player but because she would not allow herself to be beaten whereas I, who otherwise liked to excel, did not like making anyone lose.

My reluctance did not quite extend to schoolwork, however. “Can you imagine?” she said after we had both aced a class, “Sally accused me of having studied for the exam as though it were a crime to want to come first!” To befriend the person with whom you compete and to compete with a good friend was as foreign to me as eggnog at Christmas, which I likewise learned to enjoy thanks to Christians on the Daily.

As well as divisions between Jews and Gentiles, we were further separated according to our feeder high schools—Westmount, Strathcona, and Baron Byng, corresponding roughly to established wealth, middle-class, and immigrant. In those days, the private high schools that Ann Powell and her brothers attended did not yet welcome Jews. However purposefully we set out to transgress the ethnic boundaries separating us, we also sensed where everyone stood on the economic scale. Was it accidental that Ann lived at just about the same level up the mountain on the Westmount side as we did on the Outremont side, and did our respective parents recognize some such comforting equivalence when we brought home so “foreign” a best friend?




When it came to my fellow Jews, the boys from Baron Byng seemed to me more substantial and bolder than those from my own Strathcona, and it was thanks to my friendship with them that I learned about Communism up close. Not Communists themselves, they knew members of the Student Labor Progressive Party (LPP) Club, founded at McGill in the 1940s and active even after the Soviet tyrant Joseph Stalin died in March 1953. The families of the LPP members belonged to the United Jewish Peoples’ Order (UJPO)—more sect than movement, and essentially subversive in its constant denial of its subservience to the Soviet regime.

Indeed, UJPO families were the most observant Jews I knew in college. They served their competing religion with priestly devotion: the USSR was their Zion, the Comintern their rabbinic authority, Yiddish their proletarian culture, and loyalty what they owed to the Soviet people. Their class enemies were Jews like me whose family owned a factory, and college was where they trolled for us “undeserving rich.”

If you moved among Jews and aspiring intellectuals, you could hardly avoid Communists, who by the mid-1950s would face a crisis greater than the one of 1939. In the earlier year, the non-aggression pact between Hitler and Stalin—really a deal to divide Poland between them—had demolished the claim that the Soviet Union was the Jews’ last hope against fascism. The Nazi-Soviet alliance split apart kibbutzim in Palestine and Jewish families in Montreal; a boy I knew had to stop fraternizing with his cousins. But once Germany attacked the Soviet Union in 1941, Communism regained the moral high ground as the Russians proceeded to become American allies, to fight off the German invaders at Stalingrad, and to liberate some of the concentration camps.

With the end of the war, however, there came another betrayal. Stalin launched an anti-Jewish campaign that members of UJPO could not ignore. Given that Yiddish was their medium of communication with fellow Jews in the Soviet Union, they were the first to learn of the “fatal accidents” and “mysterious disappearances” of prominent Jewish cultural figures. From outside the Communist camp, the Montreal poet A.M. Klein pronounced their ideology “a saying of grace before poison.”

There was also the issue of Communist infiltration in Canada, which, although arousing less political anxiety than in the United States, similarly implicated a number of Jews. In 1945 the Soviet spy Igor Gouzenko defected to Canada and exposed Fred Rose, né Fishel Rosenberg, as a fellow spy. Rose was a member of parliament from the immigrant Cartier district where UJPO had its headquarters. Convicted of espionage, but not executed like the American spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, he was released into voluntary exile in his native Poland—where, in an episode that will have to wait its turn, I would later visit him.

It was hard for members of UJPO to wrench themselves free of their tight community of faith. Only with Nikita Khrushchev’s “secret” 1956 speech officially revealing Stalin’s crimes, and after a couple of UJPO members traveled to Russia to confirm the dictator’s postwar purge of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, did the organization begin to unravel. But its last phase, which saw McGill’s LPP Club morphing into the Folk Music Society, was also its most seductive, and certainly the most influential. As a beneficiary of this metamorphosis, I can attest to how effectively it repackaged the movement’s message.

Folk music became part of my life. I attended UJPO-sponsored concerts of Pete Seeger and the Weavers, Jean Ritchie and Betty Sanders. I took up the guitar and learned the repertoire of Sing Out!—the folk-music magazine founded in 1950 to “create, promote, and distribute songs of labor and the American people.” The songs told me to go down and join the union because “ain’t nobody there can join it for you.” The banks were made of marble with a guard at every door. Far and wide as the eye can wander I fought with the German Peat Bog soldiers on the Republican side of the Spanish Civil War, singing “Die Heimat ist weit, the homeland is distant. Doch wir sind bereit. But we are ready. Wir kämpfen und siegen für dich, We fight to victory for you. Freiheit!, Freedom!” Had the cold war been fought through folk music alone, American free enterprise would long since have crumbled.

Earlier there had even been a brief interval when the Soviets, hoping to displace British influence in the Middle East, sided with the then-infant state of Israel, and echoes of that temporary closeness lingered in the Weavers’ repertoire:

Tzena, Tzena, Tzena, Tzena/ Can’t you hear the music playing in the city square?
Come where all our friends will find us with the dancers there.
Tzena, Tzena join the celebration. There’ll be people there from every nation.
Dawn will find us laughing in the sunlight, dancing in the city square.

When the Weavers pushed Tsena onto the hit parade, I paid no attention at first to how they had also redacted the Hebrew version we’d sung at Camp Massad. Composed in 1941 by Yehiel Chagiz, a Polish immigrant to Palestine who was then serving in the Jewish Brigade, the Hebrew song urged the girls on a moshav (agricultural collective settlement) not to shy away from army men. Chagiz was ingeniously playing on Tsena Ur’ena, the title of a 17th-century Yiddish rendering of the Pentateuch that was intended for the use of women and became the most popular Yiddish book of all time. Turning this female summons to Torah into a call for the young women pioneers of Palestine to shed their modesty when fighters arrived, he also updated the term ben ḥayil, man of valor, to mean ish tsava, an army man, for now Jews were required to evolve from a religious into a soldiering society.

For their part, the Weavers neutered the Israeli battle call into a Hootenanny. Nevertheless, Pete Seeger’s banjo drew me for the only time in my life to ideas I otherwise opposed. Let me not exaggerate: I didn’t come close to joining a movement, but I was attracted enough by Soviet culture to overlook the murderous deeds that were just then coming to light.

The summer of 1956 was to be my last as a counselor at Pripstein’s Camp. The head counselor Jack Novick, a close friend and fellow folk-music devotee, resolved with me to shake the campers out of their bourgeois complacency by introducing them to a couple of foreign cultures. We chose India because the dance counselor wanted to teach Indian dances, and Russia for the complex mix of its Jewish and Communist associations. As ours was a Jewish camp, we also included a third unit on Israel, presenting the kibbutz as a miniature of the socialist ideal. We prepared for those weeks with stories, games, art and theater projects, and especially with songs from the Internationalist playbook. I did not think of it as leftism but as antidote to our parochial and—have I mentioned?—bourgeois complacency.

That summer the camp owners’ daughter was being courted by a striking man of thirty-three who spoke with a foreign accent. Immanuel Braverman had fought in the Polish army; captured by the Russians, he’d spent most of the war in a Soviet prison camp. Upon his release at war’s end, he volunteered in Israel’s War of Independence and afterward came to join his father in Canada. Immanuel visited the camp on weekends. Incensed to find us romancing the Soviet Union, he confronted us with the facts of Communist brutality. I ascribed this hectoring to his unfortunate personal experience, and felt no compunction to alter our plans. Could we help it if the best folk music and highest international ideals happened to come under Communist sponsorship? Was he not parochial to be raising political objections to our cultural mission?

Immanuel was the first anti-Communist I encountered in a Jewish community that leaned reflexively left. My father’s opposition to Communism was always tempered by loyalty to the boyhood friends who had devoted, and sacrificed, their lives to the Soviet experiment; hating the ideology, he felt obliged to honor those martyred in its cause. Immanuel tolerated no such sentimentality. Although his intervention did not make us change our program that summer, thanks largely to him I stopped flirting with Communism and its folk-song outreach. He readied me for the revelations of Robert Conquest, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and Nadezhda Mandelstam.

Eventually, in well-deserved comeuppance, I would be treated by the young to the same condescension I had showed Immanuel. Whenever I saw him in the years that followed, I thanked him for setting me straight.




Lest I leave the mistaken impression that none of my college learning was done in the classroom, I must pay tribute to Louis Dudek, whose four-semester sequence on Great Writings of European Literature I have described elsewhere as driving us “like sheep before a storm.”

The class met for an hour three times a week in the late afternoon, when the waning of the day seemed to turn up the emotional heat. It was the only literature class with a majority of males. Not that Dudek appeared to notice sex differences among his students. From Rousseau’s Emile he highlighted the sentences, “Educate [women] like men. . . . [N]ature means them to think, to will, to love, to cultivate their minds as well as their persons.” I needed no assurance that I was as mentally agile as the boys in the class; they argued harder than the girls, but I enjoyed argument at least as much as tennis.

In creating this course, Dudek repackaged the modern part of the core curriculum of Columbia University where he had done his graduate work. He would scrawl a quotation on the blackboard: “My friend! A man is a man; and whatever be the extent of his reasoning powers, they are of little avail when passion rages within, and he feels himself confined by the narrow limits of human nature.” This, from Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, made me feverish the night I read it. A young man who spends spring and summer in a rural township falls in love with a woman already engaged to another. He cannot control his desire even after her marriage to his rival. Indeed, the presence of that stolid and considerate husband goads Werther into ever wilder excesses of feeling.

Swept up by Werther’s yearning, I was hardly surprised to learn that numbers of young Germans had followed his example in taking their lives. But next day in class, to my surprise and horror, Dudek likened Sturm und Drang,the anarchy of passion, to the tantrum of a child who does not know what to do with the freedom he has won. Sounding like my parents, he warned that since our human desires cannot possibly be satisfied, it was dangerous to challenge the boundaries of human existence by striving for the infinite.

A student backed this up with the ingenious argument that Goethe was clearly warning against emotional excess, because he had his Werther reading the poet Ossian: a fake primitive invented by the Scottish poet James Macpherson. Goethe thus revealed Werther’s inauthenticity by showing him to be in thrall to a bogus poet!

Upon my hearing this, the tears came on so fast I had to flee to the women’s room. How could I have so badly misunderstood the book? I was more than ready to disagree vocally when I disagreed, but this student, endorsed by the teacher, persuaded and humbled me utterly. The intellectual adventure I craved had come—but not as I imagined. Honesty rose so high in my values that at seventeen I was ready to say, with the ageing Yeats, “Though leaves are many, the root is one;/ Through all the lying days of my youth/ I swayed my leaves and flowers in the sun;/ Now I may wither into the truth.”


And yet, and yet . . . something felt missing even in this marvelously instructive class.

Jews, who constituted over a third of the McGill student body in Arts and Sciences, were nowhere present in the curriculum. A survey course of economic history included the Rothschilds, but without so much as mentioning the historical role of Jews in European trade and commerce. Hebrew, once a staple of the Divinity School, had been eliminated in the 1930s and never reinstated. Dudek taught Kafka without revealing that he was Jewish, Céline without mentioning his anti-Semitism. As with our high-school teachers, the avoidance was probably due not to aversion but to the way you step around mud to stay on dry ground. Hitler’s erasure of the Jews of Europe had made them too toxic to mention.

I was finally provoked to speak up when we studied Thus Spake Zarathustra. Dudek presented Nietzsche as a liberator who had saved us from the wreckage caused by Darwin’s theory of human evolution. In pronouncing that “God is dead,” Zarathustra cancels the divine authority behind which lay the unrealistic Christian ethic of pity, of turning the other cheek—itself, in Nietzsche’s view, an extension of Jewish morality.

Some might say that Nazism arose because of these dark teachings of Nietzsche, but Dudek believed the reverse—that the rise of Nazism proved the need for Nietzsche’s philosophy of the superman. Nietzsche saw all around him a society that had already become essentially godless, secular, and despairing; it was to rescue humankind from this despair that he urged man to be honest about his true nature and to affirm what he found best in himself. That best emphatically included the will to power.

It was dazzling to hear our teacher tease out the “humanistic” aspects of Zarathustra’s warning against the Jewish humanism on which I had been raised. I realized that he expected me to transcend my Jewishness and to admire the soaring superman, but at that point I balked. After class I asked him how he could omit from consideration the noxious form that Nietzsche’s Übermensch had assumed in German history. If philosophy was to be taken seriously, I said, it had to bear responsibility for its influence. Dudek listened patiently and then said, “Would you hold Jesus responsible for the Inquisition?”

I lacked the wit to retort, “Wouldn’t you?” Reduced to silence, I took the question home to discuss with my father. How could we distinguish between ideas and their consequences? In Father’s chosen field of chemistry, elements could prove beneficial or harmful, depending on their dosage and application. Science determined how such elements worked through controlled experiments, but how were we to figure out the right equation in the uncontrolled conditions of life? I knew I was right not to accept Nietzsche as the savior of our morality, but lacked the arguments to back myself up. And since I was no longer attending Jewish afternoon school, I lacked the academic ballast to counter this cumulative erasure of our culture.




Our time at college coincided with the relaxation of Quebec’s Catholic influence. Its most punitive aspect, the province-wide ban on children under sixteen at movies, was on its way to repeal. Montreal seemed to be coming alive. With some friends, I thought of establishing the kind of bookstore-cum-coffeeshop that others had begun to frequent in New York’s Greenwich Village.

We ourselves never did more than imagine the place, but refugees from the crushed 1956 Hungarian revolt actually did set up coffee houses better than our imaginings. A Polish restaurant sprang up in the downtown area alongside music and comedy clubs. Some of the dramatic talent at McGill produced a mildly satiric musical-comedy revue, My Fur Lady, that far outclassed the usual college productions and went on to have a run in a commercial theater. We attended superior French plays and movies as often as English.

My own evidence of our culture’s coming of age was in the person of Leonard Cohen. It’s is hard to say how I knew that he was the most unusually talented among us, but when Louis Dudek decided to launch the McGill Poetry Series by arranging the publication of a volume of Leonard’s verse, I threw myself into the effort. My mother regularly subsidized Yiddish books through a system of advance sales, known in Yiddish as prenumerantn; following her example, I proposed to our teacher that the same system would garner the down payment he needed to publish the book. I still have in my possession some of the orders for the 200 advance copies I sold.

My interest in this enterprise was at once personal, intellectual, and cultural. The book’s working title, Let Us Compare Mythologies, placed Judaism into cultural contention—and without surrendering the Jewish claim to preeminence. If all religious certainties were being demoted to the status of myths, Judaism was nonetheless going to shine among them.

Of the many local poets whom I knew personally, Leonard was the first of my generation. He combined the courtliness of A.M. Klein with the sensuousness of Irving Layton, the two best known and most openly Jewish of the local English poets. Cohen had talked with Layton about setting their poems to music, so as to break out of the confines of “Canadian poetry” into the mass market. When Leonard broke out solo, accompanying himself on guitar on the second floor of Dunn’s Delicatessen on Ste. Catherine Street, in the heart of downtown, suddenly the cultural action was no longer just in New York.

And he was merely first among equals. His later fame so overshadowed the rest of that buoyant time that later, in writing about those years, I could say that I remembered him more vividly than I remembered myself. But individual talent needs fertile soil, and many others were painting and sculpting and studying architecture—and also writing. Adele Wiseman, who had moved from her native Winnipeg to Montreal, won the Governor General’s Award for Fiction in 1956 for The Sacrifice, a novel modeled on the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac. We had our tragic poet, too, in Steve Smith, the youngest to appear in the McGill Poetry Series, who died of bone cancer at twenty-two just as he was entering his final year of college. Dudek and I visited him together at the Jewish General Hospital after his leg had been amputated. An unfinished poem read: “he died like a pen running out of ink.”

Until then I had had the impression that we Jews were learning to fit into a society that kindly tolerated our presence. Now the sudden emergence of local Jewish culture made the city as much ours as anyone’s. In the United States, movies and novels about Jewish ambition ended with Jews marrying Gentiles. We were in this respect a generation behind, or maybe the Canadian mosaic encouraged religious and ethnic coexistence. The American Bobby Zimmerman became Bob Dylan, but Leonard Cohen of Montreal, whose uncles presided over the city’s largest and wealthiest synagogue, remained Leonard Cohen.


As we graduated and moved out into the world, each of us knew we had to find a profession to pursue over a lifetime and the partner who would see us through it. Young men generally waited to marry until they had, if not the means, then at least good prospects of supporting a wife and family. Young women looked over the field and were looked over in turn.

For me, as I will next relate, more important than finding my profession was finding a husband and starting a family. I did not think myself conventional, but it was obvious that my other ambitions could wait their biological turn.

More about: The Memoirs of Ruth Wisse